Gavin Green on the world’s first good electric car

Published: 09 August 2012

After more than 100 years of electric car dross, at last there’s a good one.

The BMW i3, likely to go on sale late next year, is the first intelligently conceived electric car I have experienced. Rather than just a ‘normal’ car that is converted to run on electric power (step forward most EVs now on sale) or a ‘bespoke’ EV that carries too much petrol car baggage (step forward the Nissan Leaf), the i3 is new from the ground up and new in engineering philosophy. It’s different in packaging, construction and materials (it may well revolutionise the use of carbon fibre in the auto industry).

EVs are compromised by their petrol car legacies

It starts with a dedicated EV architecture rather than a redundant internal combustion car layout – one of the many failings of the Leaf, C-Zero, Focus Electric, Peugeot iOn and nearly every other EV on sale today (and one of the many failings of the majority of EVs that have been sold in the past, stretching right back to the 19th century). 

Borrow a ‘normal car’ body and style, and you’ll have an engine bay that’s too big (electric motors are smaller than internal combustion engines and don’t need all their pollution and cooling plumbing; nor do they need big bulky bolt-on gearboxes; nor should they necessarily be sited in the nose).

You’ll have radiator inlets that are too big (EVs need less cooling). You’ll inherit a heavy steel body, when weight is one of the big EV bugbears, destroying performance and range. You’ll probably get a floorpan compromised by its need to house a large exhaust structure (unnecessary in a purpose-built EV).

In the same way that the very first motor cars were really ‘horseless carriageways’ – because their style was based on the outgoing form of horse-drawn transport – so these early 21st century EVs are architecturally based on the ‘outgoing’ mode of transport (petrol cars). What’s needed is ‘think different’ mentality. The BMW i3 finally delivers it.

Can the i3 kickstart EV sales?

I don’t know how many they’ll sell – nor, I suspect, do BMW. The current pathetic sales of EVs in all major markets (US, China, UK, Germany etc) do not bode well. But current EVs sell poorly because most of them are rubbish.

The i3 is different. Apart from the brilliant but minority appeal Renault Twizy (which I love) this is the first production electric car that really shows engineering genius.
It may be a year away from sale but you can see it in a showroom today – at BMW’s new i Store in Park Lane, London. See it and, very possibly, glimpse the future.

By Gavin Green

Contributor-in-chief, former editor, anti-weight campaigner, voice of experience